First it was a done deal and then it was just done. Now, in an unexpected late twist, Jürgen Klopp has gotten in his first choice midfielder as the club have agreed a deal with RB Leipzig sign 22-year-old Guinean star Naby Keïta—but he won’t arrive until the summer of 2018. It’s an unusual move, but one that means Liverpool will get their man while Leipzig will get to keep him for one more season. It’s a win for both clubs, even if it’s not quite the win they would have been hoping for to start the summer.
DOB: 10/2/95 (22) | Height: 5’8” (1.72 meters)
2016-17 Season: 32 appearances | 8 goals, 8 assists
Strengths: Naby Keïta is something of a unique player, less a jack of all trades midfielder and more a master of all, and a player who seems uniquely suited to Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp’s high press system. That’s what made him the club’s top midfield target, and that’s what made it worthwhile for Liverpool to take the unusual step of agreeing a deal committing to signing him next summer, paying a fee in excess of his 2018 release clause in order to ensure he would join up ahead of the 2018-19 season.
Most box-to-box midfielders are marked by the breadth of their skill-set more than its depth. It’s a position that relies on a player to be good at a great many things. A good box-to-box midfielder needs solid close control, passing range, vision, and marking and tackling to start with, but as long as the player is good at all of those things there is no real need for them to be great at any of them. A bit of a agility and solid acceleration helps, but with the right head for the game—the ability to read the opposition and predict the play—a weakness there can be overcome. Dribbling is a plus but, again, solid passing, vision, and close control can make up for deficiencies.
Typically, if a player really stands out at one or two of those things, they shift—either forward to become a more purely attacking midfielder or back into a controlling role. Keïta, though, stands out across the board, with the skill-set to match up with some of the game’s top holding players and top attacking midfielders to the point where to tie him to a specialist position would be to greatly limit his impact. Perhaps the easiest single point of comparison, at least for Liverpool fans and from recent seasons, would be Steven Gerrard.
It’s hardly a perfect point of comparison. Keïta lacks Gerrard’s elite physical tools, his size and strength, but edges him in technique—his feet are a little faster, he’s more mobile, and he’s better dribbling in tight spaces. Defensively, his small stature again necessitates some differences to his game, with Keïta having a more developed tactical sense than the former Liverpool captain. The mix is obviously different, then, but there is a clear similarity that can be seen in the way that both players excel in modes more typically reserved for specialised attacking and defensive players.
The way both can grab hold of a game is also very similar, and Keïta more than any current Liverpool midfielder is a player capable of putting the team on his back and through his unusually wide and deep skill-set driving them to victory. His passing range is also similar to Gerrard’s, as is his forward-focus when he gets the ball at his feet—whether he’s playing it to a teammate or carrying it forward, Keïta wants to press the issue, and he’s got the vision and ability to make that mindset pay off for his side far more often than not.
The stats back up the idea that he’s a special player, too. He’s got the defensive numbers of a pure holding player like N’Golo Kanté, a player he seems to often be compared to due to his short stature and skin tone, but when played in a more attacking role he compares favourably to the likes of Andres Iniesta in his prime. On Liverpool’s squad, with the ball at his feet at least, the closest comparison might be Adam Lallana. It’s a comparison that also works when comparing stature, work rate, and defensive effort—Keïta, though, having spent his career in midfield, has a far more developed tactical game and a more robust defensive toolset.
Comparing Keïta to any one player, though, or projecting him to any one specialised role, does him a great disservice. He is a spectacularly complete midfielder, and even if the comparison to Gerrard doesn’t quite line up when you tick off his skills and abilities individually, his role and importance to Liverpool’s side under Jürgen Klopp next season could be—will be expected to be—similar. He’s a little bit of Iniesta and Lallana and Kanté and maybe even Sergio Busquets. He can be a player as important to Liverpool as Steven Gerrard was in his prime. He’s Naby Keïta.
Weaknesses: Size. Keïta can do just about everything and anything. He’s quick over the shorter distances, decently fast over the longer ones, agile with and without the ball at his feet. He can pick a pass, has impressive range, and outstanding vision. He can cover for the defence, make an interception, and throw a tackle. He’ll stay on his feet, steal the ball away, and turn defence into attack in an instant. He’ll run for 90 minutes. And while his aggression can occasionally get him into trouble, the only real question mark is size and what it could mean for his long-term durability.
This is especially a factor given the delayed nature of the signing, and with Leipzig knowing they will now lose him for certain next summer, the club may be less inclined to consider his long-term fitness a priority. Though it’s not that Keïta has a questionable injury record—he’s missed a smattering of games over the past three seasons with minor injuries, thigh strains, bruises, and even a month to malaria—and more simply that he’s a smaller player who plays a robust and aggressive brand of football in the congested areas of the pitch.
Really, though, injuries and long-term durability are question marks with any signing—they’re part and parcel of any sport—and Keïta’s stature clearly doesn’t impact his talent, his ability, or his work rate. He has the potential to, perhaps even by next summer, establish himself as a world class player and one of the best midfielders in all of football. and Liverpool having pre-emptively secured his services is a minor coup.
Summation: It would have been better for Liverpool to have signed Keïta for this summer, obviously, but if the club can hold on to Philippe Coutinho for at least one more year then Keïta would arrive perfectly timed to replace their talented Brazilian in the summer of 2018. And in the meantime, there is still a need to bring in midfield reinforcement.
Having secured Keïta, though, is worthy of celebration. He is a player on the cusp of world class, a 22-year-old who appears ready to take the next step up and become one of the game’s best. There are no guarantees in football, but this signing is as close to a sure thing as one gets and Keïta appears a perfect fit for the club he will be arriving at in a little less than a year.